Photo by zhang kaiyv from Pexels

Photo by zhang kaiyv from Pexels

Physics is all about change. The universe, and everything within it, is evolving and in a state of constant flux. Projects are no different. Change is both what a project is, and a way of life.

Modern physics is remarkable. We have learnt to see inside the atom, and the constituent parts of atoms. The latest generation of space telescopes are staring further back in time, to an epoch not long after our universe came into being. The major discoveries of physics – Newtonian mechanics, thermodynamics (statistical mechanics), electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, general relativity and The Standard Model – that sets out the plethora of particles detected in particle accelerators such as CERN’S Large Hadron Collider – are remarkable intellectual triumphs. They underpin the modern world, and are a huge driver of development and economies. The technology in your smartphone owes itself to many generations of scientists, building upon one another’s discoveries.

Physics has uncovered this through the disciplined, and often serendipitous, process of discovery and scrutiny that is the foundation of science. An iterative cycle of theory and experiment has driven today’s understanding, underpinned by a wide body of mathematical knowledge, often developed in response to the need to describe and model new phenomena.

But what can physics teach us about project design and delivery? How can we transfer the knowledge of physics to help deliver the benefits our clients need?

Let’s start with dynamics. You may be familiar with concepts of speed, velocity, mass, and momentum from your school days. The faster and heavier something is, the more momentum it has. And the greater the momentum, the more difficult it is to counter, to change direction. The projects we work on, and the organisations we belong to, have a momentum of their own. Culture has inertia. How can we overcome inertia, to bring about the change we wish to see?

A simple application of Newtonian mechanics would say: push harder. So we do, and the organisation pushes back. This is Newton’s third law of motion: to every force there is an equal and opposite reaction. So, we ponder again: how can we accelerate something more quickly? From Newton’s second law, that states that the acceleration of an object is dependent upon two variables – the net force acting upon the object and the mass of the object. If we want more acceleration, but have limited force at our disposal, we must reduce the mass. This is the same principle used in racing – the lighter the vehicle, the more quickly we can accelerate and brake.

Try this then: next time you are facing an obstacle, divide and conquer. Make it lighter. Reduce the mass you have to move. But there’s more. Organisations and projects are people, not inert objects. If we have a system, make the system work for us. This is one of the key steps in the Kotter change process – build urgency around change. Get the constituent parts of the system working for you: commandeer more force to move the same mass faster.

You may also recall experiments with water: freezing and boiling it, observing the rapid phase transitions from one state of matter to another. The thermodynamics behind this are described using statistical mechanics – ideas such as heat, entropy and work.

There is a connection between these and the notion of tipping points, popularised by Malcolm Gladwell’s book of the same name. We require a critical mass for a new idea to embed itself in our culture. Similarly, inconsistencies in a piece of metal can become the seeds for metallic cracks and rapid failure. Entropy, a measure of disorder, is occasionally discussed. Entropy quantifies the number of micro-states of a system that satisfy a given macro-state. The higher the number, the more possibilities there are – and the more chance something will go wrong. So, thermodynamics teaches us: try constraining your project, and you may find it easier to deliver. his would seem to go against the grain, but in my experience, constraints such as deadlines also force the conversations that need to be had. Doing the hard, risky things early is the hallmark of the consummate professional.

Chaos theory is another key idea in physics, commonly understood through the ‘butterfly effect’ – the proverbial butterfly wing precipitating, through the complex and non-linear weather systems of our planet – a storm on the other side of the world. A small change to an input leads to a large change in the output. Does this sound like your project? If it has chaotic tendencies, is there anything you can do to mitigate this? Why do you have such powerful non-linearities; is the project unconstrained, disordered, undocumented?

Information theory is another fascinating area of research: there are defined limits to how much information can be conveyed using a sequence of numbers, or sent down an internet connection (see Shannon information theory). Consider how your project communicates. The more people that need to share a common understanding, the more interfaces there are (number of interfaces = number of people * (number of people) / 2). Have you got too many people in your meetings? Do they really need to know?

Another memory you may hold from your school days: using a magnet to pick up an iron nail. The permanent magnet induces magnetism in the iron of the nail, causing the fields to attract one another and for the nail to seemingly defy gravity. This induction, or polarisation, is a common physical principle. But how might it apply to projects and people? Consider the idea that ‘behaviour breeds behaviour’ – that is: behave as you wish others to behave. This is a form of polarisation or induction. The goal is to induct others to behave the way you would like them to behave. Who knew that leading by example and setting the vision has strong connections with fundamental physics?

Einstein's Field Equation

Einstein’s Field Equation

Consider now the work of Einstein, two of his great works being Special Relativity, followed by General Relativity. The mathematics of these is considerable, but the ideas – that of frames of reference – are more readily absorbed. The next time you are stuck on a problem, try re-expressing the problem in a different way: a new frame of reference. You may then find the problem is solved more easily.

The latest science is perhaps even more strange: concepts that are hotbeds of research, such as a holographic universe (in which we are projections of information on an infinite sphere) and quantum loop gravity (that concludes space and time are themselves quantised – that is, lumpy – at unimaginably small scales) may seem far-fetched, but presage a world where we must think about projects very differently. It is my belief that project science will develop and will drive a significant mathematical improvement in how we model and execute our work.

But what can we all do right now, to actively benefit from physics?

  • Science thrives on ‘ecotone’, the intersection of ideas. Actively seek out principles in science and other disciplines, and try them out in project management.
  • Projects are about change. Do everything you can to tell those stories of change as precisely as possible: there is a vast body of artistic, scientific and mathematical literature on how to tell stories – find it, and try it out.
  • The universe is a laboratory, and physics seeks to understand the world at all scales; try being a physicist on your project, and seek to understand how it, and the environment it functions in, works.

As the world becomes more complex, the onus is on us, the project management profession, to demonstrate how we can deliver this complexity more quickly and more predictably.

(c) James Lea 2018

If you would like to explore how ideas from project physics can benefit your organisation, please get in touch.

A variant of this article was published in “Back to School – Project Physics” in the APM’s Project Journal Autumn 2018.